Wednesday, June 12, 2013
A Modest Proposal About How To Do GMO Food Labeling Right
If some politician will introduce a bill to require labeling of the type I have described and include guaranteed funding for real education, they could get the enthusiastic support of the scientific community.
Would my labeling suggestion satisfy the groups that have been promoting "GMO labeling?" Probably not. There is pretty strong evidence that their goal is not really about what consumers would "know." It seems more likely that it is about wanting consumers to be afraid and thus to buy more of the organic, certified non-GMO, or under-regulated supplements they sell (look who provided the money to push prop 37 in California). The clue is the typical imagery used by these labeling promoters and their allies. It usually involves the meme of a large, scary looking hypodermic needle filled with a suspicious, liquid being injected into something like a ripe tomato.
That image bears absolutely no relationship to how plants are genetically engineered. It is a transparent attempt to frighten people. Thus, if the labeling were to actually let consumers know enough not to be afraid, it wouldn't accomplish the financial goals of many of the groups pushing labeling. It might even reduce their sales.
I salute my fellow Californians for voting down Proposition 37, a deeply flawed GMO labeling initiative which would have been a consumer knowledge disaster for the financial benefit of certain folks who really don't deserve it. As a scientist and someone who cares deeply about food, I could endorse a food labeling law like the one in my modest proposal.
You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me a firstname.lastname@example.org. I tweet from time to time @grapedoc. Shopping image from Anthony Albright. Code stamp image from Allprostamps.com. Tomato image from Global Research Canada
For those that are interested here is some background. GMO crops, those that have been modified using the tools of genetic engineering, go through a degree of composition and safety testing which has never been required for other means of improving crops - even methods such as mutation breeding or wide crosses which have far more potential for undesired effects. These new crop varieties are scrutinized by no less than three federal regulatory agencies under a system called "The Coordinated Framework" that was hammered out in the 1980s and 1990s well before any GMO crops were commercialized. Historically most regulation of industries has been instituted after there has been a problem. GMO foods are rather unique in that the regulations were designed before there was any commercialization and in the absence of any problematic events.
The USDA scrutinizes any potential for the crop to be a "plant pest risk" and any sort of gene transfer issue for other crops or weeds. The EPA scrutinizes any pesticide-related issues such as the Bt-based insect resistance traits or the herbicides that would be used on herbicide tolerant crops. The FDA scrutinizes the data that the companies submit to demonstrate that their new varieties are functionally identical to non-modified versions of the crop. They don't have specific requirements because each crop and modification would be unique in terms of what matters. Still, that does not mean what is often alleged that there is "no required testing." The submission is technically voluntary, but all biotech crop developers have always submitted data to the FDA. Again, new crop varieties from all other mechanisms of genetic modification have no testing requirements at all, so if there is any testing it is on a purely voluntary basis. "GMO crops" are unique in that they must be tested and approved.
With all this analysis of GMO crops, it is should not be surprising that even though this technology has been adopted for billions of acres of crop production over 16 years, there have been no legitimate health or environmental problems, and rather a great many benefits.